Tired of images that stigmatised the nation, Patrick Willocq's work pays tribute to the "beauty, simplicity and dignity" of daily life in the Democratic Republic of Congo
As a child, Patrick Willocq spent seven years in the Democratic Republic of Congo; with a camera given to him by his father, he recorded the people and places he encountered. In 2009, 27 years after leaving, he returned, and the trip proved a revelation. “I totally reconnected with myself,” he says. “My passion for photography revealed itself stronger than ever. This helped me face the fact that I was fundamentally not happy with my life.”
Willocq had been working for corporate multinationals in Asia for nearly two decades, but he abandoned his successful career to resettle in DR Congo. “I feel at home in the remote villages among the locals,” he says. “I have always been struck by the beauty, simplicity and dignity of daily life there. I want to go beyond the images that stigmatise the nation; for instance, I wish to bear witness to the peace that prevails in the Western part of the country.”
His first series, On the road from Bikoro to Bokonda, bears testimony to the everyday challenges faced by the Batwa and Bantu communities; with their help, he staged scenes speaking of education, religion, the relationship between men and women, the impact of globalisation, and so on. By creating these setups, he was able to take his images far from the usual hackneyed depiction, and the project was featured in several magazines and festivals once completed in 2012.
The project also caught Martin Parr’s attention, and on the strength of it he recommended Willocq for our Ones to Watch issue in January 2014. “This idea of carefully staging documentary is not how you expect to see Africa interpreted,” he says. “This adds to the fresh quality of this work.”
The photographer’s subsequent project, I am Walé Respect Me, was a collaborationwith Pygmy women, their respective clans, an ethnomusicologist, and artisans of the forest. Together they created a visual representation of the intimate thoughts these women sing about on their release from ritual seclusion.
“I [felt] fortunate to have the chance to spend so much time with them, and be accepted by them,” says Willocq, who has opened a clinic in a remote village with the help of donations from friends. “This is my way of giving back to these communities that have been welcoming me.”